It’s hard to see your heroes turn into background noise. I’m talking about Charlie Brooker here; going from a lauded cult mouthpiece of cunning, wit, irreverent humour and brilliant and articulate observation to just a man on TV.
Should I blame Connie Huq? Or should I shut up and let Brooker get on with it? Well, no, I won’t actually shut up.
When I was about 17, a friend introduced me to this new thing online called TV Go Home – a vicious and hilarious parody of the TV Times, a listings magazine, and its vanilla, matter-of-fact approach to informing the public about the drama of TV drama.
TV Go Home was hilarious; I giggled long and hard at it, blushing at my puerility but relishing the vivid angry images painted in my head. This was my introduction to Charlie Brooker and I loved it.
For years to come, TV Go Home was the bedrock of my internet diet. I’d sympathise with the lampooning of traditional British programing and modern youth TV and admire the dry, yet colourful, approach to violent and putrid film synopses.
It’s where Nathan Barley was born, the central character in an on-going fly-on-the-wall documentary called ‘Cunt’.
TV Go Home’s slow death was disappointing, but Brooker writing for The Guardian wasn’t. His TV review column, Screenburn, was the most refreshing part of the week’s broadsheet offerings.
By now, around 2003, the net was teaming with vitriolic, angry loudmouths, blogging and reviewing away like they were professionally trained. In hindsight, some of them probably were. The Guardian had found one of the best though; Brooker’s articulate anger had found a new home. Not bad for an ex-games journalist.
The pages of a small Guardian entertainment supplement, and a page in the daily paper, weren’t enough to hold Brooker’s cutting wit. BBC4 popped up and helped devise the perfect format for his highly accurate rants. It was called Screenwipe and it was good.
Actually, Screenwipe was brilliant. Brooker would dissect the week’s TV, with a few other shows that caught his eye. Each review piece was exactly the kind of TV criticism the UK was gagging for, but didn’t know it yet. It was Screenburn on TV and, to date, still stands as the finest, most relevant, TV criticism shows in the last 10 years. Nothing else comes close.
OK, so he was pretty awkward on camera; his puffy eyes and stilted limb movements might have distracted from the content, on BBC 3 at 9pm on a Friday. But the bowels of BBC4 were a safe haven. It was a perfect, if lonely, fit.
Screenwipe was a non-profit TV show, I was informed. It had a small budget and churned out around five episodes a year. His next move, however, was a bold one.
Brooker, far less scared than other TV critics, it would seem, put his pen where his mouth was and wrote his own TV drama: Dead Set.
The Big Brother/zombie mash up was as close to event television as pre-recorded drama involving flesh-eating monsters can get, on E4. The reality TV homage was a giddy, watered down zombie romp but one Davina McCall in zombie makeup later and Dead Set is regarded as a UK borderline-cult favourite.
Eventually, Screenwipe came back with a series of specials; like one about US TV and one focusing on TV writing, exposing the humanity of some of the biggest name behind British TV. Again, fascinating and insightful TV. Brooker knew exactly what he was doing.
After Screenwipe came Newswipe. The same format was in place, but news was the obvious focus here. Far from being a dull look at the news, which I immediately dismissed it as, Newswipe was a smart, fluent, poignant and scathing dissection of our print and TV news media.
How news is handled obviously irked Brooker which fuelled the fire that helped Newswipe shine. Newswipe spoke right to me; it exposed the double standards of the news and helped people like me articulate what we felt was wrong and broken with our news resources. Especially the piece Brooker did about Jade Goodie.
It was as close to The Daily Show as the UK needed; I see it as one of the most important pieces of modern TV in this country. Trouble was, not enough people were listening to him.
A solution to getting Brooker into the faces of more people was, perhaps, moving him to primetime TV. Somehow. So we had You Have Been Watching. Jesus wept. What the hell was this? A box-standard BBC panel quiz show with Brooker hosting. Brooker?! He’s a brain, not a face.
Then there’s 10 O’Clock Live. Next to Lauren Laverne and Jimmy Carr, Brooker is ‘that really angry guy off BBC4’, but he’s also The Journalist in this shallow attempt at popular satire. Even the publicity posters for 10 O’Clock Live had Brooker looking a little irked knowing his journalistic integrity is lying bruised and bloody on the floor. But it’s more likely his grumpy face is now his catchphrase – like Bruce Forsythe’s Brucie pose or a David Brent lookalike’s David Brent dance.
Satire is a well-played card on British TV; it has a long and proud history. Any satire today needs to have evolved from Chris Morris’s Brass Eye, The Day Today and pretty much anything by Armando Iannucci. By forgetting those, satire is just silly people speaking words by witty writers serving no purpose, other than to repeat what we’d already thought or read somewhere else. Proper satire should make us think and open our minds to new ideas. And be hilarious.
Since he started, Brooker has forged a reputation for honest, intelligent, passionate opinion, and for new British satire, above and beyond tripe like the over-produced Channel 4 groan-fest that is 10 O’Clock Live.
The only shining light out of Brooker’s new status is How TV Ruined Your Life. It’s basically Screenwipe without the reviews. It’s as funny as its mother show, it’s as relevant and more people are watching it. I can’t help think this has come at a great cost though.
His new haircut, probably born out of trendiness now he’s married the hottest Blue Peter presenter this side of Janet Ellis, looks odd. His designer stubble looks uncomfortable.
I have a hard time swallowing the idea that Brooker is content with all of this. That his opposition to third-rate television with its trivial gags, badly conceived Top 10 shows and the self-destructive turmoil television is in as an art form, should be so easily shelved for fame seems fake.
Were Brooker’s early years of TV Go Home, Screenburn and the ‘Wipes all engineered by Brooker solely to get him high up the TV ladder? All that pioneering; a ruse to get Brooker famous. Alas, I’m not mental and that theory doesn’t fit. I’m sure Brooker is just making the most of the opportunities he’s given.
But Screenwipe and Newswipe are very important programmes; no other critique on TV is as clear or concise, as poignant or as fair, to my generation especially. Charlie Brooker shouldn’t be famous, he should continue to be right.